Imagine you’ve had a really, really, really bad day. After immense emotional turmoil, you, a sophisticated Londoner – and proud of it, have gone to a pub in a little Welsh town that feels like a foreign country. You’ve got rolling drunk, and only escaped from the local Lothario – chief characteristic that he spits when he talks – when scooped up by a strange woman, perhaps a madwoman. She misunderstands you, you misunderstand her, and she ends up chasing you around her living room with a cross and a knife, trying, perhaps, to kill you.
These are the rib-rattlingly funny opening scenes of Cariad, by the first-time playwright Sophie Stanton, who also plays the meaty role of the fey, rambling Blodwen. She’s stayed in the town she was born in but, it emerges, her drunken visitor Jayne (also beautifully played by Rachel Sanders, who manages an entirely controlled drunken stagger with great vermisilitude), was here until the age of nine. She’s come back only to spread the ashes of her mother.
Nine’s also the age of Blodwen’s daughter Emily, a sad, difficult child. Jayne says she “doesn’t get on with children”, yet she bonds almost immediately with the waif, so like her mother must have been. Emily is played by Becky John, who does an excellent job of playing a child character who is sometimes old beyond her years.
But Jayne, even when sober, is understandably bemused by Blodwen, a woman who jumps between tender solicitude and rambling, crazy-sounding soliloquoys, about everything from dinner being “burnt to a turd”, to complaints about “my aching arseholes”. Her crowning line is: “My mind is a fart in a colander.”
And, even more confusingly for Jayne, Blodwen comes out with long accounts of their childhood together that Jayne has no recollection of. The title of the play is a Welsh noun for “love, darling or dear”, yet this part of Jayne’s (apparent) past is none of these things.
Female novel writers are often accused of sticking to domesticity, and a cursory view might say that this is a small play – just three characters in a Welsh cottage sitting room. But while Cariad’s setting may be small, its ambitions are big. The issues here are not just about relationships, what the grand childhood promises might mean in adulthood, why the past is forgotten and another country, but also about how characters are formed and life choices made, and passed through the generations.
There are no heros or villians, nor even comfortable middle-class certainties about people who made the “right” choices. There’s laughter, and tears, pain and joy, but no neat resolutions, for the characters, or the audience. This is indeed, a fine, complex, and deeply funny play.
If there’s one criticism of this production to be made, its over length. Opening night ran well over two hours. The problem is not so much in the text itself, but the staging. There’s an awful lot of shuttling forth with tea cups and similar that stretches it out.
But that’s a quibble rather than a criticism. If you can get a ticket for the small auditorium, go to see this play.
The play, produced by the Operating Theatre Company, is at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London until December 17.
My London Your London
Read more like this on a personal cultural guide to the city.